In April 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ahimsa Fund launched the “Ahimsa Renaissance Movement,” or ARM, as a means by which to learn from the crisis. It was founded in the belief that COVID-19 has to be a starting point for change. One of ARM’s first commitments was to hold a series of conferences on the fundamental questions around why that change is needed, what it could look like, and how to bring it about.
This meeting was a discussion about leadership. The conference was hosted by Saba Al Mubaslat, a humanitarian who has worked in some of the world’s most challenging contexts – including helping governments throughout the Middle East shape their national agendas around resilience, youth, leadership and positive community engagement – who is now CEO of the London-based Asfari Foundation. In this event, four representatives of the first cohort of ARM and young leaders of global health – Luthfi Azizatunnisa, Vedant Batra, Yashashree Deore and Charlotte Evans – shared their visions, their expectations and their challenges in free and frank discussion with Saba.
The talk was wide-ranging, beyond the ability of a short summary to cover it all. This report is a brief exploration of the discussion’s main themes.
ARM’s work to involve younger people in substantive leadership initiatives is a necessary reaction to a deficit of imagination among authority figures around the world. Existing models of responding to the world’s biggest problems are not, so far, breathtakingly successful. While the majority of people on the planet are young, they are seldom consulted by decision-makers. So Ahimsa held a discussion with the ARM Fellows and set about re-imagining a leadership more suited to contemporary problems: as Ms Al Mubaslat put it, “I hope that the likes of us will take the back seat in future. We can advise, coach and mentor, but we should stop claiming that we’ve figured it all out, or that we’re in a position to lead simply because we’re older.”
Leadership can only honestly be addressed once distinguished from authority. Authority, in its most functional form, is a social contract given to a person – like a president, a prime minister or a minister of health. It comes with certain expectations, and with accountability if that person cannot or does not deliver.
In its more destructive forms, however, authority it becomes a form of populism or authoritarianism of the type that has been found so demonstrably wanting by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the last year or so, just as the world cried out the loudest for collegiality, for a coming together to protect the weakest and most vulnerable, most of our highest profile authority figures retreated into comfortably unimaginative political self-interest. Opportunities for real leadership, of the type that lays the foundations for better futures, were lost.
Leadership comes from advocating or leading for a purpose – presenting and promoting different, better ideas and gathering people around those ideas to solve problems, lead change, or bring about equality and justice. It is as much an art, a thing of judgement and intuition, as it is a set of skills or an outlook. It is built on personal authority and merits, not the authority vested in position or status. The qualities and experiences of an individual leader matter more than their job title.
These discussions identified five main leadership qualities to be interrogated before someone can really be called an effective leader. The first is strategic leadership skill – the ability to see and relate to the bigger picture that is possessed by visionary people who understand how their context must shape their goals and their efforts to achieve them.
The second is the ability to speak with people so that they can relate to that vision and those goals and support them. It is the ability to listen to and learn from others, and to articulate and share information with them sympathetically. People with this quality can communicate with integrity and courage, challenging the status quo.
The third quality is the ability to make wise decisions and take the correct risks. The fourth is the management and organisational skill that every leader requires.
The fifth, the thing that brings all these others together, is the personal qualities. Not anyone can become a leader. Certain personal qualities are required – though perhaps these can be improved with time – that must include being principled; acting with integrity; possessing the self-awareness and humility to invite others to complement areas of personal weakness; determination and perseverance; and the energy and enthusiasm to push others forward when the path to change is difficult. This last quality is invaluable: people resist change. Authority, in particular, resists change.
Once they have established those qualities, tomorrow’s leaders – or today’s new ones – have an interesting set of challenges and opportunities ahead of them. Again, the models and ideas discussed were too many to list in full, but in a short time Saba and the ARM fellows provided several valuable insights.
Foremost among these, perhaps because it touches on so many other areas, is the idea that not all movements for change should be born of deficit. Instead advocating responses to problems, responding to a lack of something, or to pre-existing damage and pain, the world might benefit immensely from more movements that are enthusiastic, positive and celebratory – counter-movements of hope and belonging. Leadership requires positive collaboration and human-centric efforts to find common ground; but such initiatives are the hardest to fund. No one wants to finance peace. Until people own the tools and the space to come together as a positive tribe, with a sense of the collective in service of a good cause, the common ground will remain the pain and the obstacles rather than the change. A paradigm shift is required, not least on the part of donors, agencies and multilaterals, to complement reactions to crisis with prevention and investment in positive change.
Technology is likely to be central to any such efforts. Modern approaches to communication and mobilisation open up myriad new ways of creating global tribes through social media and other means of digital interaction. This must be reflected in how we reimagine leadership, which need no longer be predicated on mobilising neighbourhoods or geographic communities. “My community” is now potentially extended beyond almost any geographic boundary to likeminded people anywhere in the world.
Central to the opportunities this presents is the importance of inclusivity. Many young people today see the world in fundamentally different ways to their seniors; many are tired of pushing back against the burden and the stain of damaging old systems no longer fit for purpose – if indeed they ever were. They do not see themselves as different because of their skin colour; they cannot be considered lesser because of their customs and their traditions; they are not threats because of their religion. They are who they are as individuals – and as valuable as all of us can be – because of their mindsets. Here, there is common ground.
Pushing back against these old systems and replacing them with new ones requires a return to accountability, something that seems to have fallen away in public life. Figures of authority, as opposed to leaders, suffer few or no consequences when they misbehave, underdeliver or break promises. Trust falls away, but there is no accountability to the masses. This must change.
COVID-19, as destructive to established habits and truths as any event most of us have seen in our lifetimes, is a huge opportunity for the necessary change. It is a challenge that can bring humanity together or tear it apart. So far, we have seen forces pulling both ways, with new and wider divides opening up in some places and inspiring models of collaboration and cooperation blossoming in others. The battle is not over, and victory is there to be won. For that to happen, the egalitarian movements of all kinds will be crucial: the fight for more and better access to education and knowledge, more sharing and more equitable access to health is increasingly urgent.
When this pandemic is over, the toll on mental health around the world will be enormous. Perhaps this will be particularly true for the young, frozen in place as they are by the pandemic, denied opportunities at a crucial inflexion point in their lives. This looming mental health crisis will have to be spoken about with painful honesty. The cost, both financially and in terms of wellbeing, will be immense. Meeting it will require a leadership that knows love, and which is not ashamed to manage with love.
With that in mind, there is a huge amount to be gained from embracing the feminine side of leadership. Historically, women in leadership or authority have been the least corrupt and the most open. The femininity of leadership is moderate; it is inclusive by nature; it knows how to love unconditionally. “Unconditional love” may be a phrase that has lost some of its impact through repetition, but it is an almost unimaginably powerful concept. If there is one single outlook that might allow current wounds to heal, it could be this.